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Analysis Of Amerindian Perspectivism Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2898 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro has been an essential force in new strands of anthropology within the last decade, and his foremost contribution has been the development of Amerindian perspectivism. Viveiros de Castro's objectives were to produce a more generalised framework of Amazonian cosmologies and shamanistic practices, with an aim to dispose of the 'nature versus culture' dichotomy that had always prevailed within the discipline of anthropology. By rediscovering the notion of 'animism', Viveiros de Castro was able to formulate new modes of relation between humans and non-humans, and 'perspectivism' may be seen as simply a potent rendering of animism. This essay will explore the comparisons that have been made in recent ethnography between Viveiros de Castro's Amerindian perspectivism and the application of perspectivism to other parts of the world. This will ultimately result in the questioning of whether perspectivism can, in reality, be labelled a theory. Initially an examination of Viveiros de Castro's analysis of Amerindian perspectivism is crucial in an attempt to draw comparisons with the deployment of perspectivism in ethnography within northern Asia, in particular Mongolia and Siberia.

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Viveiros de Castro purports that his development of the notion of perspectivism forms a vital component of most Amerindian cosmologies, and is founded upon spiritual unity and corporeal identity. In opposition with the distinction between nature and culture, Viveiros de Castro illuminates a contrastive feature between Western and Amerindian cosmologies. Anthropology itself centres on the 'multiculturalist' notion to the nature vs. culture dichotomy; the idea that there is one universal nature and many cultures, as building blocks structured upon that which is pure and unifying; nature. This approach implies the universality of the body, and the subjective distinctiveness of spirit and meaning. The concept of multiculturalism has consistently been applied to the demographic constitutions of a particular place with multiple ethnicities and religious groups, and to notions of identity (Visweswaran, 1998). Viveiros de Castro proposes that for Amerindian cosmologies however, an inversion of the multiculturalist notion, that is 'multinaturalism'. Multinaturalism is the conception of spiritual unity and corporeal diversity, the unifying and objective being culture and the subjective distinctiveness of nature; bodies (Viveiros de Castro, 1998).

Amerindian cosmologies share mythology and the notion of a creation myth that there was once an original state of undifferentiation between humans and animals, and this serves to unfold Amerindian perspectivism. This is the shared mythological belief that animals are ex humans, and that the original common condition that both humans and animals shared was humanity rather than animality (Viveiros de Castro, 1998). This origin myth can be employed to explain the general meaning of perspectivism. Viveiros de Castro states that "animals and spirits see themselves as humans: they perceive themselves as anthropomorphic beings.... their social system as organized in the same way as human institutions are" (1998:470). This is the principal idea of perspectivism; that nonhumans see the world as humans do, but what they see differs from what humans see because of the distinct medium through which they see things differs from the medium through which humans see things (Pedersen, 2001). Every being that has a soul is capable of having a point of view, and it is the point of view that creates the subject. The point of view is located within the body, and differences between viewpoints concern the differentiation between bodies (Viveiros de Castro, 1998). What Viveiros de Castro refers to as the 'body' is "an assemblage of affects or ways of being that constitutes a habitus" (1998:478). The concept of habitus has most recently been elaborated by Bourdieu (1972) as a system of dispositions in response to determinate structures and other fields that are neither wholly voluntary nor involuntary. Acquired dispositions or ways of being include taste, communication and habitation.

To tie this in with multinaturalism, every subject creates their own conception of nature. Viveiros de Castro refers to the form of a being as like a piece of clothing which masks an internal human form that is only visible to those within the same species or trans-specific beings such as shamans. "It is not so much that the body is a clothing but rather that clothing is a body" (1998:482). An animal's clothing (their body) is not simply manipulated as a disguise, but rather their equipment that differentiates them from one another, and provides them with their habitus. The internal human form is the beings' soul or spirit (1998). By undergoing metamorphosis, the being sheds its clothing and, through a process of transformation, adopts the point of view of another being. The shaman is the only being that is capable of assuming the point of view of 'the Other'; the extra-human animal, and returning back to its original state of being unharmed (Viveiros de Castro, 1998).

Amerindian perspectivist cosmologies bear striking similarities with the notion of animism, initially proposed by Tylor in the nineteenth century. Tylor attributed animism to the "almost universally held beliefs of primitive people that certain objects and persons were animated by something incorporeal called 'spirit'" (Kraus, 1971:487). Descola (1992) developed this idea of animism that all spiritual entities are similar in that they share spiritual features, with the difference being the body that they are endowed with (Latour, 2009). Thus, animism would appear in accordance with Castro's proposition of multinaturalism within Amerindian cosmologies. In contrast with the multiculturalist notion of the nature vs. culture dichotomy, animism holds society as the unmarked pole, as the unifying dimension, rather than nature.

Totemism, on the other hand, is the conception that individuals and clans share kinship with other forms of non-human being. Levi-Strauss (1962) discusses totemic classifications as a form of organisation which emphasises discontinuities between species to confer a conceptual order on society. The totem is a non-human being which is normally accompanied by a totemic myth, and they are manipulated to make the social world a more coherent classificatory system. Therefore, there is a very striking difference between animism and perspectivism, and totemism; in totemic societies the non-human being is regarded as a sign, and in animic and perspectivist societies, the non-human being is regarded in terms of the relationship it makes available (Pedersen, 2001). It will be brought up later on with an analysis of northern Asian cosmologies, that some ontologies in northern Asia are predominantly animistic, and some predominantly totemistic.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Viveiros de Castro's notion of perspectivism is wholly an animistic concept. His analysis of Amerindian perspectivism has been supported by Peluso's research undertaken in Peru. Peluso critically discusses her ethnography on dream narratives amongst the Ese Eja, an Amazonian community, and acknowledges that multinatural perspectivism is present within the ontology of dream narratives (2004). Naming dreams are common for the Ese Eja, and reflect multiple overlapping realities of time and space, acting as a reminder for its subjects that transformations are possible between multiple worlds. Eshawa, for the Ese Eja is the "concept of personhood that connects the self with all species and the spirit world" (Peluso, 2004:2). The dreams always involve an interaction between the animal and the dreamer, and involve the animal transforming itself into a child and addressing the dreamer by the appropriate kin term. This action eludes the mother/father/grandparent dreamer to the child's dream name, and they must use this name for everyday life (Peluso, 2004).

Viveiros de Castro's notion of perspectivism in Amazonia is quite clearly at work here. People validate the links between dream names and their namesake animals through perceived shared physical and character traits, relating to Viveiros de Castro's corporeal affects that form the distinctive viewpoints of subjects. Similarly, multinatural perspectivism "such as the dream world, implies that all subjects (human or not) share personhood and interact socially as enacted in dream narratives." (Peluso, 2004:9). The dream world allows the capacity for carrying over the same viewpoint into different cross-realities, and dreams are sources of knowledge and channels of communication between multiple worlds, unhindered by physical or ontological distance (Peluso, 2004).

Peluso's ethnography based on the Ese Eja community in Peru is a fine example of Viveiros de Castro's Amerindian perspectivist cosmology in practice, but the question still remains as to whether perspectivism can be applied to another part of the world other than Amazonia. The vast majority of the rest of this essay will attempt to apply perspectivism and its deployments through ethnography, to two very different regions of northern Asia; Mongolia and Siberia.

Pedersen (2007) has written extensive ethnography concerning the Darhad's of Mongolia, and their relationship with perspectivism. It is clear that Viveiros de Castro's Amerindian perspectivism is prevalent within Darhad animist cosmology, but at the same time there are several distinctions that must not be overlooked. A stark contrast between Darhad and Amerindian cosmology is that the Darhad's do not share the conception of a creation myth; an original state of undifferentiation (Pedersen, 2007). Viveiros de Castro suggests that mythology is a precondition for perspectivism, in that the period from whence everything was undifferentiated and 'humanity', is crucial for spiritual unity and the universality of beings (1998). Nevertheless, Darhad cosmology is amythological yet animist and comprises multiple points of view; different perspectives unchanging over time.

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The majority of the Darhad animist cosmos is perceived as an unmarked territory, and that it is along specific paths where the social lives of beings occurs. Therefore Darhad cosmology itself is not one unified whole, but rather many parallel worlds, with each parallel world containing the totality of relations enacted through a given point of view (Pedersen, 2007). Similarities can be drawn here with Amerindian perspectivism in that exchanges of perspectives between different kinds of beings are being experienced by the Darhad people, however there appear profound differences. The Darhad's nomadic landscape is organised according to the constellation of centres within it, with the nomadic households as physically moving entities, and sacred stone cairns such as those on the top of mountains as fixed components. All nomadic movements centre around these gravitation points, for the rest of the nomadic landscape is void (Pedersen, 2007). The Darhad conception of the landscape appears more of a totemic reality than an animist one in this sense. Rather, as a "discontinuous grid that places beings in relationships of homologous differentiation" (Holbraad & Willerslev, 2007:331). Viveiros de Castro's Amerindian perspectivist cosmology amounts to a boundless whole, a continuous universe where all beings relate to one another, whereas Darhad perspectivist cosmology lacks this perception.

The narrative of the Badagshin that Pedersen (2007) recollects however, can be seen as the representation of a distinct form of Mongolian perspectivism that draws parallels with Viveiros de Castro's Amerindian perspectivism. The Badagshin are half-people non-human beings that appear most frequently to Darhad hunters. Similarly with Amerindian perspectivism, the shaman is the only being capable of undergoing complete metamorphosis and returning back to their original state of being unharmed. Therefore for Darhad hunters, adopting the point of view of a nonhuman being is something that should be avoided at all costs. Pedersen recalls an account of a Darhad hunter and his friend encountering a Badagshin whilst traversing the nomadic landscape. For the hunter, the Badagshin appears before him as half a deer, yet for his friend it appears before him as half an old woman. Within a few weeks the friend is dead. This phenomenon may be explained in terms of the Darhad perspectivist cosmology itself, for the friend has undergone transformation from human being to non-human being through the complete adoption of the Badagshin's point of view and crossed through to the other side, resulting in death. It is not the hunter himself comprising two perspectives, but rather the cosmology itself, and "by being seen only in the form of halves, they reveal - in the form of their virtual, invisible halves - an occult vicinity between the human and the non-human" (Pedersen, 2007:323). Exchanges of perspectives for the Darhad appear essentially abrupt, as one leaps from one form of being to another, with the nomadic void playing the role of a trampoline, as one jumps between finite worlds (Pedersen, 2007).

A key difference between Darhad perspectivism and Viveiros de Castro's Amerindian perspectivism is that the Darhad's encounters with spiritual beings are always incomplete, as the Badagshin example illustrates. Humphrey (1996) also reveals that encounters with spiritual beings amongst the Daur of Mongolia tend to always be incomplete and intermitted. Amerindian perspectivism appears more symmetrical and horizontal, whereas Darhad perspectivism appears asymmetrical and transcendent (Holbraad & Willerslev, 2007). The Mongolian shaman's ability to undergo various metamorphoses and gain the perspectives of another being can be directly linked to the evasion of the hierarchy within a society that is highly rigid (Pedersen, 2001). As a consequence of this spiritual hierarchy, exchanges of perspectives are vertical rather than horizontal, a direct contrast to Viveiros de Castro's Amerindian perspectivism.

Holbraad and Pedersen (2007) suggest that "in Inner Asia, beings can 'become other' not because they are themselves already 'other' (as in Viveiros de Castro's Amerindian perspectivism), but rather because the perspectives that they can occupy remain other to them" (p.331). These are transcendental perspectives and reflect more of a totemic reality than an animistic reality apparent in Amerindian perspectivism. It would appear that Mongolian perspectivist cosmology is very different to that of Amerindian perspectivism.

Much ethnography in Siberia has revealed a more animistic cosmological perspectivism, and yields more similarities to Viveiros de Castro's Amerindian perspectivism. Stepanoff (2009) studied cannibal shamans in Siberia and adopts a perspectivist approach to elucidate that the shamans become cannibals because they see humans as prey animals. Similarly, Bogoraz's (1904-1910) ancient ethnography on the Chuckchee can be seen to draw parallels with Viveiros de Castro's Amerindian perspectivism in that others, in this case the kely spirits, see themselves as humans and humans see themselves as others. Kely spirits live like humans in villages and hunt humans which they call 'little seals'. Social relations in Siberia appear horizontal rather than vertical, which, as a condition for animism appears to align them with Amerindian perspectivism rather more than their Mongolian neighbours. Likewise, the space constituted by human beings and non-human beings amounts to a boundless whole rather than a discontinuous grid (Pedersen, 2001). Pedersen (2001) puts forward the notion of animist analogous identification in Siberian cosmology, which holds the viewpoint that one has the ability to imagine oneself in someone else's position, and the ability to imagine someone else in one's own position. This correlates with Viveiros de Castro's Amerindian perspectivism.

Thus, I would argue that Siberian perspectivist cosmologies are much more similar to Amerindian perspectivist cosmologies than their Mongolian neighbours. However, it is challenging in itself to stretch Viveiros de Castro's concepts that fit Amerindian cosmology to other parts of the world due to the fact that there is so much differentiation. The question ultimately comes down to whether Viveiros de Castro's perspectivism can be seen as a theory or not, and whether it should be applied to other parts of the world.

Holbraad and Willserlev (2007) suggest that Viveiros de Castro's Amerindian perspectivism may be regarded as a theory due to the fact that "it is an essentially intellectual artefact: theory is born of the anthropologists' mental effort" (p.330). However, this particular theory appears somewhat constrained by its ethnographic material of which the theory was conceived of, and the context from which it derived from cannot necessarily be applied to other ethnographic contexts. This does not detract from the fact that Viveiros de Castro has put forward an Amerindian perspectivist theory, which does exactly what it says on the tin.


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